About the Image of God in Man

A reader sent in a letter which I quote in part: 

“From most of that which I have read, of which I have quoted some, which without doubt, could be multiplied by you, I get the firm impression, that through the fall we lost the image of God. 

“Now comes the question. Again and again I come across writings that either slightly contradict, or add something that to my mind confuses the subject, sometimes coming from the same sources or author. 

“Calvin, Commentary on Genesis, Chapter I. Although he claims on page 94, that the image was destroyed, on page 95 he claims, ‘…but now some obscure lineaments of that image are found remaining in us….’ Or Calvin’s Institutes, Book II, Chapter VIII, art. 40: ‘man is both the image of God and of our flesh, wherefore, if we would not violate the image of God, we must hold the person of man sacred…, viz., to revere the divine image impressed upon him….’ Then Calvin goes on to connect it with the crime of murder. All this leads me to ask: “Is this where some of the Reformed writings get their idea of Gods image in the ‘narrower’ and ‘wider’ sense? 

“All this came to mind when I read: ‘Exposition of Galatians,’ by Rev. Lubbers (Standard Bearer, Dec. 15, ’79, page 138, under the co-heading ‘secondly: Murder is the desire to obliterate a man as image bearer of God (Gen. 9:6). We do not speak of the murdering of an animal, do we? …But murder is hatred for man as the image of God’ (Gen. 4:8, 14, 15). 

“Reformed Dogmatics (on page 207) denies that this distinction has ever received official standing in the Reformed Churches, yet, I am not able to find an explanation of Gen. 9:6I Cor. 11:7, or James 3:9. Without doubt, it is there, but I, for one, would like to have this seeming contradiction explained.” 

First of all, I wish to express by sincere appreciation to a person who makes a serious study of the Scriptures and is, at the same time, a discerning reader of various expositions of the Scriptures. Your number is by no means legion in this day, no, not even among us as Protestant Reformed believers. 

I gladly make an attempt to remove some of the problems that have arisen in the mind of our questioner. 

We turn, first of all, to Genesis 9:6, where we read: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” Our correspondent is correct when he says that, according to the usual interpretation, of this verse, the reason why a murderer must receive his due punishment for his offence is, that the murderer makes an attack upon the image of God in man. Nevertheless, this can hardly be the correct interpretation of Genesis 9:6

We know, of course, that when God created man at the dawn of history, He did not create an image in the narrower and in the broader sense, as if after the fall man retains the image in the narrower sense, but loses it in the wider sense. A far better distinction is the distinction between man as image bearer and as possessing the image of God. When we say that God created man as an image bearer, we mean that man was created in such a way that he was capable of bearing the image of God. He stood upright with his face directed toward God. He had an intelligent face, a dexterous hand; a body capable of functioning as king of the earthly creation. Man was a rational, moral, intellectual being, who could desire, will, think, speak his thoughts, and act consciously, deliberately, according to the purpose of God. Besides, the image bearer was created in the image of God, which consists of true knowledge of God, righteousness, and holiness, so that He could consciously and willingly devote himself to God in love in all that he did. At the fall man’s image was perverted. Actually this is worse than the mere loss of God’s image, for the image is perverted into spiritual darkness, hatred against God, and an unholy walk of life. The friend servant of God became a child of Satan in open rebellion against the living God. Yet he remained man. He is still a rational, moral creature, who thinks and wills, speaks and acts deliberately. And therefore man is accountable to God for what he does all the days of his sinful life upon the earth. 

When we turn once more to Genesis 9:6, we notice that the statement “for in the image of God made he man,” appears in a context in which God pronounces His just judgment upon the evil doer, in this case the murderer. Verse 5 reads, “And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man.” 

Verse 6 adds to this that “by man shall his blood be shed.” The punishment of the murderer is committed into the hands of “man,” that is, of the magistrate. The magistrate is ordained of God to be the minister of God’s justice in an evil world (Romans 13:1-5). And the reason why this execution of justice is entrusted to man is the fact that “in the image of God made he man.” Man stood in paradise as friend-servant of God and king of the earthly creation, ruling over all things in God’s Name. Already in this original creation of man lay the institution of the office of the magistrate. Therefore the fall did not change God’s calling that man should rule in God’s Name, and thus also execute justice in an evil world. The fact that the magistrate is evil, and therefore does not carry out this divine mandate also makes no difference whatever. His calling and responsibility remain. The person who makes himself guilty of murder must be punished by death according to the justice of God, and that by the magistrate which God has appointed for that purpose. 

Of course, the guilty, unrepentant murderer is worthy of everlasting punishment in hell for his sin. As a rational, moral creature he remains responsible, even though he may appeal to a moment of insanity, or make some other excuse to cover up his offence. 

Turning now to I Corinthians 11:7, we read, “For the man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.” In the context of this verse we see that Scripture is making the distinction between man and woman, which goes all the way back to the creation of the man and of the woman. In verse 3 Paul states, “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” From this the apostle concludes that the woman must never make herself the same as the man, not even in her outward appearance, like wearing her hair the same as a man does (verse 6). And the man must not make himself like the woman, not even in his outward appearance or hair-dress (verse 7). The reason that is given is, that “he is the image and glory of God.” This undoubtedly refers back to man’s original creation. Man was created first, and was created as king of the earthly creation, the responsible head of the human race. Eve was created as his “help-meet.” Therefore man was created to reflect directly the image and glory of God. But the woman was created to serve the man, and thus reflect the image and glory of God through her husband. Even though this image of God was perverted through the fall, nevertheless it is restored to us in Christ, and therefore we must live as members of the body of Christ, serving Christ to the glory of God. 

Finally, we must consider the passage in James 3:9, where James is speaking of the unruly, evil tongue, saying, “Therewith bless we God, even the Father, and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.” Here we have a reference once more to the original creation of man in paradise. Man is made according to the image, or the similitude of God. Even though that image is greatly perverted by sin, man still remains man, the man who once was image bearer of God. He remains a rational, moral, responsible creature before God. To curse that man is to call God’s judgment upon him, that God may condemn him to hell. What a terrible offence that is when one sinner damns another sinner to hell. But how far more offensive it must be in the ears of God when one who. professes to believe in God and blesses God turns about and curses his fellow man, even when he does that thoughtlessly and carelessly.